My two weeks in England was something of a theater marathon. My mornings and afternoons were spent in a library or on some kind of tour. My evenings (beginning around 4 p.m. because I was so nervous about being late) consisted of getting moderately lost on my way to a theater that wasn’t nearly as easy to find as its directions made it sound. Although critical opinions — as well as my own — varied from play to play, all eight were at least fun to watch. Even jet lag and 24 hours without sleep weren’t enough to keep me from enjoying those first few nights of Shakespeare.
But only half of the plays were by Shakespeare himself. As much as I loved Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Richard III and Merry Wives, I’m pleasantly surprised to say that the other four — Uncle Vanya, Kiss Me Kate, Boris Godunov and The Orphan of Zhao — resonated the most for me on a King Lear level. The two Royal Shakespeare Company productions were especially relevant.
Out of all eight, I was actually looking forward to Boris the least. As soon as I started flipping through the program and reading the accompanying articles though, I knew I’d have a lot of Lear material to think about. My instincts weren’t wrong: Boris was my least favorite production. But the play’s historical and dramaturgical background has a lot to explore.
Alexander Pushkin published Boris Godunov in 1831, but it was based on the historical Russian tsar who ruled from 1598-1605. The play was a pretty obvious commentary on the current Nicholas I (Russia’s longstanding autocracy has prevented much room for political discourse, so Russian poetry and drama often uses historical events as reflections on modern day problems). Pushkin focused on how Godunov supposedly killed his way to the Russian throne and the guilty conscience that plagued him during his rule. Like Shakespeare, Pushkin flubbed historical accuracy in favor of dramatic effect; there isn’t any evidence supporting Godunov’s supposed murder of the legitimate heir to the throne, the young son of Ivan the Terrible. In all reality, Godunov made his way to the top of Ivan’s political ranks through genuine hard work, and the infant Dmitry most likely died of natural causes. But he undeniably did he a pretty horrible job as tsar. Godunov is still infamous for starting Russia’s Time of Troubles, an era of famine, revolt, foreign invasions and economic despair.
Pushkin’s retelling of Godunov’s life focuses on how the tsar’s sins against God and the country lead to his downfall. The Russian people desperately sought an explanation for this sudden end to their prosperity. They rallied behind a man who claimed to be Dmitry, true heir to the throne who was supposed to have died at Godunov’s hands as an infant. The play ends with Godunov dying of natural causes, as per historical fact, and the imposter Dmitri gaining rule.
I really didn’t enjoy the production. It wasn’t for lack of effort on the actors’ parts or the artistic choices. The play’s themes — family and politics, corruption of power, revolt and chaos — were delightfully Lear-relevant. It was the text itself that disappointed me. It was a reminder of why Shakespeare’s plays are still as popular as they are; this adaptation of Pushkin’s play was thematically engaging, but the language itself was awkward and melodramatic, and the actors were clearly uncomfortable with it. It made me think about how incredible King Lear is, how it’s not just a dramatically poignant story, but a beautifully written one as well. According to the RSC’s program and promotional posters, this was supposed to be a “comedy about tyranny.” I don’t think I even chuckled during the two-hour play (with no interval it felt way longer) which was a bummer; I was hoping for some insight into how humor can work with a play about corruption of power. Luckily, I got some great examples from the King Lear recordings I watched at the libraries. The humor in King Lear is much more overt than in Boris, so hopefully our three-plus hour production won’t drag.
What I did appreciate was how much the production considered modern day connections. Recent Russian revivals have staged it in modern dress as commentary on contemporary politics, making Godunov look like Vladimir Putin. I’m not sure how well the RSC’s staging made the story relevant for its British audience, but it was a reminder of how a centuries-old play can still have meaning. Even Pushkin had to admit that Shakespeare was pretty great: “What is worked out in a tragedy?” he wrote. “What is its aim? Man and the people. The fate of man, the fate of the people. That is why Racine is great, despite the confined form of his tragedy. That is why Shakespeare is great, despite his unevenness, his carelessness, the ugliness of his finish.” So kudos, Shakespeare. I think….
The Orphan of Zhao
I saved the best play for last. The Orphan of Zhao was….magical. There was some controversy surrounding the casting of this production, actually. Since the real orphan’s birth around 583 BC, his story has been told and retold so many times it’s been dubbed the Hamlet of China. It certainly has many Shakespearian elements: It’s a revenge story, tackles guilt and grief, covers political and family drama. And yet it’s distinctly Chinese. So when only three Asian actors were cast in the production, none in principle roles…the media jumped down director (and new artistic director) Gregory Doran’s throat.
But critics couldn’t deny it. This was a pretty awesome production. The play is about an Emperor who becomes corrupted by one of his ministers, Tu an Gu. When they start using the people of China for target practice, three of the Emperor’s advisors remonstrate with him about his change in nature. He banishes two of them; the third, Zhao Dun, chooses to stay in the kingdom to care for his pregnant wife, the Princess (daughter of the Emperor). Tu an Gu kills Zhao Dun and assassinates all 300 members of his clan. The Princess gives birth to a son and hands him over to Chen Ying, the country doctor who delivers his child. Long story short, the doctor has to switch his own infant son with the Orphan of Zhao in order to save the heir to the throne. Tu an Gu adopts the orphan as his own son, so 18 years later, when his true identity is revealed, he must come to terms with having to kill his adopted father.
Apologies for the extended plot summary, but I loved the play and production so much I wanted to do it justice. Looking at it with King Lear in mind (not difficult considering I saw it after a full day of Lear recordings at the Birthplace Trust) I was most fascinated by how this story is both an intimate family drama and a large-scale commentary on political corruption. The play posed difficult questions about the inheritance of power and the dangers of absolutism. But on a smaller level, it was a story about father-son relationships; Chen Yin had to sacrifice his own child (and by extension his wife) to ensure that the Zhao family would survive. The most moving scenes were those with the Orphan and his parents; reuniting with his mother, learning his family’s tragic history, confronting his adopted father. But the most emotionally searing moment was the epilogue, when Chen Yin died in the arms of his son’s ghost, finally finding peace and forgiveness after years of guilt over the boy’s murder. Like Boris, this play can be staged as a commentary on contemporary politics. But Orphan balanced the larger aspects of political corruption with the more tender, relatable aspects.
King Lear directors often struggle with whether they want their King to be more of a king or a father. Do they want their production to be a social commentary or a family drama? But the best Lears, like Zhao, are often those that balance those two sides of the story. Peter Brooks’ landmark 1962 Lear revolutionized how directors see the King; he was no longer just a father “more sinned against than sinning,” but a corrupt leader who had to reconcile with his faults. Making Lear responsible for his mistakes is certainly something we need to keep in mind for our production (if Lear’s faults all stem from senility, what lessons could we possibly learn?). But keeping that other side of the king in mind, the tender, paternal side, is also essential. Our audience needs to care about what happens to our King.
It would have been nice if one of the Asian actors had played a larger role (although otherwise, the company did seamless colorblind casting). But this was by and large a beautiful production. It was the perfect ending to a once-in-a-lifetime trip.